Guest blogger Revd Bruce D. Thompson reflects on church compicity with antisemitism, and the role that the Bible sometimes plays.

I had long suspected it be the case.  The confirmation however, came at a time, and in a way, I least expected; it was at a planning meeting for a Holocaust Awareness Day scheduled for later in the year on church premises.  Most of the organisers drawn together to facilitate the day were from the local church. As we progressed through the practicalities, car parking, welcoming at the door, seating layout, and catering someone asked, ‘What is the session after lunch about?’ Another organiser answered ‘It’s Bruce Thompson; he is speaking on Church Complicity in the Holocaust’. ‘Oh that’s okay, we can do the washing up then.’ I can’t be sure it wasn’t a reflection on my lack of popularity with the person volunteering to do the washing up. Nor can I be sure it wasn’t a dismissal of church complicity in the most chilling chapters in human history.  I had long suspected lack of interest in such a possibility; it was now that my suspicions may well have been confirmed.

It wasn’t until I had been in ministry for 15 years that I heard someone suggest that John’s account of the Gospel could be deemed to be anti-Jewish. It was in a synagogue where a member of that community made the claim. I was shocked, but respected his opinion. When I revisited the twenty-one chapters that make up the account later that weekend, I could see his point. The identification ‘Jews’ is found no less than 71 times whilst only 16 times in the synoptic gospels as a whole. Whilst they may mention Scribes and Pharisees, John’s account makes little distinction between the various sects at the time of Jesus. Jews, according to John, are people of the world, unfaithful to the Torah, and ultimately responsible for the death of Jesus, a charge that has led to anti-Jewish teaching in the Church fostering prejudice, persecution, and pogroms throughout the centuries. There are too many echoes of the medieval past in the beliefs and actions of Nazi ideology and antisemitism today for there not to be a causal link. Some might argue that the only thing that differed from the Shoah (Holocaust) was the scale and methods adopted; much of the killing during the Final Solution actually took place in the same forests and villages as the massacres centuries before.

John’s account of the Gospel was completed after the split between Christians and Jews, and animosity between the two groups was prominent. Each group were vying for the same hearts and minds in their shared world.  Material for the synoptic Gospels had been formed, in the main, at a time when the hostility was not so deep.  Indeed, many believers in Jesus continued with Torah adherence and considered themselves faithful but ‘reformed’ Jews for centuries afterwards around modern day Syria and the Arabian Peninsula. But, in the years following the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the differences deepened and after Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Empire in 323 CE, the stage was set in certain quarters for ever-deepening hostility towards Jews and Judaism. Anti-Jewish rhetoric from the Early Church Fathers helped paint the canvas.

Later, Martin Luther, having initially hoped that his new doctrines would attract Jews to Christianity, not least because Rome might be considered a common ‘enemy’ to both the Reformers and Jews, found that there was no mass conversion from Judaism to protestant Christianity.  This led to the scathing and vicious attack in the form of ‘The Jews and their Lies’ (1543): 

Holocaust museum, Berlin. Photo: Peter King

First, set fire to their synagogues or schools and cover with dirt whatever will not burn,
so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them.
Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.
Third that their prayer books and Talmudic writings…be taken from them.
Fourth, that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.
Fifth, that safe conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews.
Sixth, that…all cash and treasure of silver be taken from them.
Seventh, I commend putting a flail, an axe, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.

It is no exaggeration to claim that this document was effectively the blueprint for the Holocaust centuries later. The Nazis came to power in 1933, the 450th anniversary of the birth of Luther. The date was not lost on them. They quickly set about celebrating the event and republished ‘The Jews and their Lies’ a tract that had almost been forgotten over the centuries. The Holocaust was of course a catastrophe for European Jewry, amongst the 6 million murdered, 9 out of 10 Jewish children in Europe perished. In addition, the Holocaust remains a shadow on the Christian Church.  We cannot escape the fact that the perpetrators were in the main, baptised Christians. The late Professor Franklin Littell, Methodist minister and Holocaust academic, rejected from a Nuremburg rally when protesting the teachings of Nazism, suggested that the Church could not fulfil its mission until it repented of its attitude towards Jews[i].

Today, there remains a refusal amongst many to acknowledge that anti-Judaism in the Christian Church helped lay the foundations for contemporary antisemitism and anti-Zionism (each a form of Judeophobia). Each Passiontide some of us still hear thoughtless references to ‘Jews’ and the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus, whilst failing to acknowledge that the first followers of Jesus and the ones who took the message into the wider world were in fact Jews. On Good Friday there remains in many churches insufficient explanation, or better still revision if not refusal to use, the Reproaches that include ‘I delivered you from the hand of Pharaoh, but you delivered me up to be crucified.….I opened the sea to lead you out from slavery, but you opened my side with a spear’. [ii]

Tackling racism, in whatever form, is a vital component of the Christian mission; we would do well to reflect more deeply on the prejudice that has been fostered by complacent teaching, and at times wilfully perpetrated hostility, on Judaism and Jews.

Guest blogs are invited to stimulate thought and comment. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence.


Bruce Thompson is a Methodist minister, currently Chair of the Lincolnshire Methodist District.  Throughout his ministry he has been actively engaged in interfaith matters, especially the relationship between Jews and Christians.  His latest book, Echoes of Contempt, explores the contempt with which the Christian Church has often held against the Jewish communities.  He is also a blogger and broadcaster.

[i] Franklin Littell, The Crucifixion of the Jews, Harper & Row 1975

[ii] The Methodist Worship Book, p256f

The Holocaust: Church Complicity and Indifference
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5 thoughts on “The Holocaust: Church Complicity and Indifference

  • 29th June 2021 at 10:20 am
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    Thanks so much for this. While as Christians we can (and must) repent of our complicity with antisemitism and hostility toward the Jewish people, I´m wondering how such looks practically? It seems that our own scriptures are sometimes seeped in antisemitism. For example, if it can be proved that John´s account of the Gospel is indeed anti-Jewish, how then are we to divorce ourselves from something that seems intimately part of our story?

    Also, I don´t think the all out pro-Israel, Christian Zionist theological stance taken by many evangelical Christians (mostly in the U.S.) is the answer either to this problem. I think one can be critical of the policies of the modern State of Israel while at the same time standing in solidarity the Jewish people.

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  • 5th July 2021 at 8:26 pm
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    Thanks for this, Bruce. I was horrified, once I began to understand the specifically Christian foundations of antisemitism, that I hadn’t been taught any of it growing up in church (or in my Christian school, for that matter). I’m with Matthew, though, in my belief that there are ways of holding a critical stance towards the State of Israel that should not be equated with antisemitism – and I’d want to suggest, in addition, that there appears to be a sinister anti-Jewish thread running through many historical and current day expressions of Christian Zionism (see e.g. https://religionnews.com/2019/07/08/the-anti-semitic-theology-behind-the-christian-zionist-lobby/).

    (@Matthew: Personally I’ve found it helpful – both in terms of being repentantly attentive to Christian complicity, and in terms of knowing what to ‘do’ with Christian scripture – to keep on going deeper into the difficult texts and learning more about the Early Church context(s). I’m currently reading (and loving) Willie Jennings’ theological commentary on Acts; he narrates the story of the church’s inside-Judaism beginnings with insightful sensitivity to the pressures and anxieties of diaspora life under empire. I also found Richard Hays’ frank and thorough handling of anti-Jewish hostility in ‘The Moral Vision of the NT’ really instructive.)

    I’d love to see churches actually teach on this stuff from the front – and I’m strongly of the opinion that we need to be way more open about our past and current harm-causing generally, instead of playing what seems to me a toxic PR game in which we convince ourselves that we are called to present a managed and inauthentic “good image” for the sake of the gospel.

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  • 6th July 2021 at 9:36 am
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    Thanks so much Carolyn. I read part of “The Christian Imagination — theology and the origins of race” by Jennings, but I found it to be a very difficult read, though I think I get his main point(s). I will try and read the Hayes book you recommend.

    The church does indeed need to be more “up front” on a lot of things. The church also needs to be willing to encourage those who are able to use their minds to think through this stuff. I have found that those tasked with teaching us in church settings most often treat us like children, or they themselves are afraid of the thorny and difficult questions.

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    • 6th July 2021 at 12:44 pm
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      Yes, my feeling is that there’s a *lot* of fear behind our avoidance of difficult questions and realities – an avoidance that actually creates the conditions for the very realities we dread to flourish unchecked. In my own grappling/grieving, my hope and prayer is for an increase of faith in our communities, and of trust in God’s faithfulness and the goodness of God’s gospel. This, rather than a false confidence rooted in denial, might just give us the courage to be truthful even (especially) when it costs us our good image of ourselves.

      Much as I appreciated Hays’ book, it is quite a commitment as reads go! (Hefty and broad in scope). I imagine there’s equally helpful books that are more targeted to this topic, but I’ve not read any of them to recommend. Maybe Bruce and/or others will be able to add some pointers. (Just noticed his bio mentions a book of his own, though it looks like its primary focus is on Christian history rather than scripture.)

      Reply
  • 6th July 2021 at 9:42 am
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    Excellent article Carolyn. Thanks so much for the link.

    Reply

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